Rabbi Elio Toaff

  • Born: April 30, 1915
  • Died: April 19, 2015
  • Location: Rome, Italy

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In this March 16, 1998, Italy's Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff adjusts his yarmulke during a press conference in Rome. Elio Toaff died in Rome, Sunday, April 19 2015 at the age of 99, ANSA Italian news agency reported. (AP Photo/Mario Cassetta)

Rabbi who hosted pope visit to synagogue dies

The Associated Press

ROME (AP) — Elio Toaff, the longtime chief rabbi of Rome who helped set Judaism and the Catholic Church on the path to reconciliation after centuries of distrust, has died. He was 99.

Toaff died Sunday, the Jewish community announced, and Rome's main synagogue immediately opened its doors for those wishing to pay their respects.

Toaff took a historic step on the path of reconciliation when he welcomed St. John Paul II on the first-ever papal visit to a synagogue in 1986.

"A rabbi doesn't work only for his community or for the Jews. A rabbi has to talk to every human being who needs him. He belongs to everybody. He is for everybody," Toaff told the Jerusalem Post in an interview on the eve of his retirement in 2001.

His willingness to engage in interfaith dialogue made him a privileged partner in the Vatican's efforts to reach out to Jews and other religions, and Toaff was one of only two living people mentioned in John Paul's will when the pontiff died in 2005. The other was the pope's personal secretary.

In a message of condolences to the head of Rome's Jewish community, Pope Francis recalled the historic relationship that helped change Catholic-Jewish relations.

"He was a protagonist of Jewish and Italian history in recent decades, able to conquer the esteem and appreciation of others through his moral authority and profound humanity," Francis wrote.

Born in 1915 to the chief rabbi of the Tuscan town of Livorno, Toaff followed in his father's steps after earning degrees in law and Jewish theology. He rose quickly through the ranks of Jewish scholars, and at 26 was called to lead the community in the central town of Ancona.

Following the 1943 German invasion of Italy, which saw thousands of Italian Jews deported and killed, Toaff joined a resistance group that fought in the mountains of central Italy and worked to hide Jews and other victims of persecution.

After the war, he led Venice's Jews from 1946, and in 1951 became chief rabbi of Rome, helping revitalize a community still reeling from the loss of more than 2,000 people sent to Nazi death camps.

While marked by the steady improvement of relations with Catholics, Toaff's tenure also had its moments of sorrow, including a periodic resurgence of anti-Semitic sentiment and the 1982 attack by Arab extremists that killed a 2-year-old boy and wounded 36 people among worshippers leaving the main synagogue.

Four years later, Toaff and John Paul shared a historic embrace in the same monumental synagogue, built over the remains of the ghetto in which previous popes had confined Jews for centuries.

Widely known across Italy as a respected intellectual, Toaff published books on Jewish culture and in 2005 he was proposed by some politicians as a candidate to become a senator-for-life in parliament.

Toaff was deeply loved within his own community and many wept openly when, at 86, he told the congregation gathered at the main synagogue that "you need a younger rabbi."

"He was a rabbi of great personality, a very lively man," the late Tullia Zevi, a former head of Rome's Jewish community, said upon the Toaff's retirement. "He had the gift of always finding the right word for the right occasion."

Toaff was widowed and leaves three sons and a daughter.

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Biographical material in this story was written by former AP Rome staffer Ariel David.